Generativity and Adult Development
Generativity is defined as “the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation” (Erikson 1963, p. 240). It thus subsumes all goals and actions that intend to have a positive impact on future generations (McAdams and de St. Aubin 1992), such as parenting, teaching, and mentoring. As this impact is ego-transcending in nature, Kotre (1996, p. 10) defines generativity as “a desire to invest one’s substance in forms of life and work that will outlive the self.”
The concept of generativity originates from Erik Erikson’s (1963) theory of psychosocial development. This theory postulates eight developmental tasks, each of which characterizes a specific period in the life span. After having run through four childhood stages, in adolescence, people figure out who they are and want to be (i.e., develop an identity), then form lasting interpersonal commitments to a romantic partner (i.e., develop intimacy) in young adulthood, subsequently widen their radius of care to younger generations and the world at large (i.e., generativity), and finally review their lives in old age to come to a positive acceptance of the life they have lived (i.e., ego-integrity). Thus, according to Erikson, generativity is the defining developmental task of middle adulthood, which is often defined as beginning at 35 and ending at 65 years of age (e.g., Vaughan and Rodriguez 2013). However, the view of generativity as limited to this – albeit long – period has received a lot of criticism. For example, Vaillant and Milofsky (1980) have argued that due to the wide variety of potential generative behaviors, some forms of generativity precede others and can be found before middle adulthood while others become relevant in later periods in life and thus are shown in old age. Currently, generativity is rather seen as increasing in importance in midlife but no decline in importance is assumed in old age (Villar 2012).
The quality that develops with generativity is the care for the coming generations and for the legacy one leaves behind; in Erikson’s words, generativity thus entails “‘to care to do something’, ‘to care for’ somebody or something, ‘to take care of’ that what needs protection and attention, and ‘to take care not to’ do something destructive” (Evans 1967, p. 53). Those who fail to develop such care remain in a state of stagnation or self-absorption which means they care only for themselves. Thus, they are at risk of not aging successfully and productively in that they do not engage in social and societal commitments (Erikson 1963).
In its beginning, research has employed various empirical approaches to studying generativity (such as interviews, single-case studies), with each approach highlighting various aspects of generativity. To systemize generativity research, McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) introduced a model which distinguishes seven facets of generativity: Cultural demand and inner desire represent motivational sources of generativity. Whereas cultural demand refers to societal expectations concerning appropriate timing and outlets of generativity, inner desire is often seen in terms of implicit, that is unconscious, motives. Consisting of a need to be needed by others and a desire for symbolic immortality, the inner desire combines the motivational trends of communion and agency. These motivational sources feed a generative concern, which is the extent to which an individual is willing to care for future generations. Provided the individual holds an optimistic view of humanity’s potential for positive development which Erikson called belief in the species, this investment is channeled into specific generative goals (commitment). In turn, generative goals energize generative action. Finally, an individual’s life narration serves to provide generative efforts with a sense of meaning and embed generativity into a coherent narrative identity.
The model has sparked a lot of studies which have generally confirmed the predictions it makes (for an overview, see McAdams 2013). Moreover, the Loyola Generativity Scale (e.g., I try to pass along the knowledge I have gained through my experiences) and the Generative Behavior Checklist (e.g., Over the past 2 months, how often have you taught somebody about right and wrong, good and bad?), which McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) have introduced along with their model, have become the gold standard self-report questionnaires for assessing generative concern and action, respectively.
Key Research Findings
The key research findings presented in the following will focus on the consequences of generativity. More specifically, they concern the behaviors that generativity can be expressed through. Here, parenting and grandparenting will be highlighted along with political and environmentalist activities. Furthermore, research will be reviewed that examines how generativity relates to well-being and the way individuals think about their past. Finally, some examples of how generativity might be applied in various contexts will be discussed.
Behavioral Expressions of Generativity
As has been stated previously, generativity can be expressed in a host of generative actions. In fact, various authors have suggested taxonomies of generative behaviors. Schoklitsch and Baumann (2011) distinguish six classes of generative actions: biological (i.e., the interest in passing on one’s genes), parental (i.e., the interest in raising and educating one’s children or grandchildren), technical (i.e., the interest in passing on specific skills), social (i.e., the interest in guiding younger people by passing on knowledge and values), cultural (e.g., the interest in making political contributions), and ecological (i.e. the interest in preserving the environment for future generations) generativity. The authors also present questionnaires to capture these generative aspects, which they validated specifically for older adults.
Parenting and Grandparenting
For Erikson, parenting is the prototypical generative behavior. It is, however, not the only behavioral expression of generativity so that also people whose desire for parenthood is thwarted can achieve generativity as Snarey et al. (1987) demonstrated in a sample of involuntarily childless men. In line with this finding, generativity is associated with well-being in parents as well as childless adults (Rothrauff and Cooney 2008). That is, parenting is an important but certainly not the only way to achieving generativity and can be compensated by other forms of generative behavior if need be.
Among parents, generativity relates to the way they behave towards their children; with more generative concern, parents tend toward a more authoritative parenting style (Peterson et al. 1997). That is, they blend demandingness, which is a combination of maturity demands and monitoring of children’s behavior, with responsiveness, which is a combination of emotional warmth and autonomy support. The findings further suggest that authoritative parenting is the mechanism that connects parents’ generative concern and their success in transmitting their attitudes to their children. Indeed, parents’ generative concern predicts their children’s positive affect, political interest, and attitude similarity with their parents (Peterson 2006; Peterson et al. 1997). Moreover, with more generative concern, parents also encourage a stronger involvement of grandparents in the socialization of their children, possibly because they view grandparents as important agents in the transmission of family traditions and lore (Pratt et al. 2008).
This is in line with Erikson’s later writings (Erikson et al. 1986) in which he acknowledges the importance of generativity for old age, stating that grandparenthood provides a new opportunity for generativity. Correspondingly, older adults state that as grandparents they can pass on traditions, experiences, and knowledge to their grandchildren in a more conflict-free relationship than with their children (Warburton et al. 2006; cf. Erikson et al. 1986) and that they feel this exchange is beneficial for their grandchildren as well as themselves (Hebblethwaite and Norris 2011). Indeed, in a sample of grandmothers, Moore and Rosenthal (2014) found grandparental engagement to contribute to a sense of generative achievement. In turn, sense of generative achievement predicts women’s successful aging composite score of life satisfaction, societal involvement, and general health over a 10-year interval (Versey et al. 2013). Similarly, generative concern predicts older people’s satisfaction with their role as grandparent (Thiele and Whelan 2008). It thus seems that grandparenting is a suitable area for older people to express their generativity and experience it as rewarding.
Political and Environmentalist Activities
Political and environmentalist activities represent promising behavioral outlets for generativity because they allow individuals to leave future generations a world worth living in. It is thus not surprising that generative concern is positively associated with political interest and political contributions (Peterson 2006; Peterson and Duncan 1999). It is important to note, however, that the specific political causes that persons commit to are dependent on their general political orientation. More recently, it has been argued that preserving natural resources serves the well-being of future generations and hence benefits from people’s motivation for generativity. Consistent with this argument, generative concern predicts the extent to which people save water and energy both at home and at their workplace (Wells et al. 2016). Research findings are thus in line with Schoklitsch and Baumann’s (2011) notion of cultural and ecological generativity categories.
Generally, scholars agree that generativity should contribute to well-being; indeed, many psychological but also laypersons’ (Fisher 1995) theories cite generativity as an integral part of successful aging. However, when specific aspects of the McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) generativity model are investigated, findings consistently show that generative concern relates positively to well-being whereas generative behavior does not necessarily do so (e.g., Grossbaum and Bates 2002). An explanation may be found in the fact that generative actions require resources (Hofer et al. 2016): You have to invest time, energy, and sometimes also material resources. As McAdams (2013, p. 200) puts it: “Generativity is tough work.” Similarly, examining generativity in the context of need satisfaction, Hofer et al. (2016) demonstrated that some needs might be more readily satisfied by generativity than others: Unlike the needs for relatedness and competence which benefit from generative action in that contributing to the thriving of future generations serves to connect generative individuals with others and provide them with a sense of achievement, the need for autonomy relates negatively with generative action. Oftentimes, generative action might be enacted in direct response to some request by juniors, so that generative individuals might feel they are compelled to engage in a form of generativity that is not of their own choice. Findings such as the one by Hofer et al. (2016) suggest that generativity does not come without costs.
Moreover, generative individuals cannot be sure if their generative efforts are appreciated by their intended recipients. The more people view their generativity as not valued, the less does their well-being benefit from generativity and the less they are inclined towards generativity in the future (Cheng 2009). That is, recipients’ reactions to generative endeavors play a decisive role in whether generativity contributes to well-being. Similarly, the lack of what Erikson termed a belief in the species decreases the well-being people can derive from their generativity: In individuals with Machiavellian attitudes, i.e., the conviction that others cannot be trusted because they would readily exploit one’s efforts, generativity is unrelated to purpose in life, whereas there is a positive relation in those low in Machiavellianism (Busch and Hofer 2012). Taken together, research thus suggests that although generativity is generally associated with well-being, there are internal and external obstacles that can lessen the well-being benefits that generative individuals reap.
Despite such restrictions, research converges towards the conclusion that, generally speaking, generativity does indeed contribute to well-being in older adults. For instance, generative behavior is linked to meaning in life in older adults from Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Hong Kong (Hofer et al. 2018). Moreover, as has been stated before, Versey et al. (2013) found a sense of generative achievement to be positively associated with successful aging. Similarly, Gruenewald et al. (2012) showed that more self-perceived generativity is associated with a smaller increase in activities of daily living disabilities over a 10-year period. Also, older individuals’ failure to meet their self-set generativity standards across this 10-year period is predictive of lower life satisfaction, with decreased positive affect, self-worth, and social connectedness mediating the relationship (Grossman and Gruenewald 2018).
Finally, an indicator of well-being that is argued to be specific to old age, however, is (a relative absence of) the fear of death. From the perspective of terror management theory, it has been argued that generativity is motivated by the attempt at warding off the fear of death. An empirical test of this hypothesis had indeed found that generative concern was increased in older adults when they had been reminded of their mortality compared to older adult who had not as well as to younger adults in both experimental conditions (Maxfield et al. 2014). This finding is compatible with the inner desire for symbolic immortality which is a motivational source in McAdams and de St. Aubin’s (1992) generativity model. More recently, however, Busch et al. (2018) demonstrated that generativity does not have a direct effect on the fear of death. Generativity is related to a decreased fear of death in that it is associated with ego-integrity which in turn predicts a reduced fear of death. Hence, it is ego-integrity which is defined as the acceptance of one’s one and only life-course that is directly linked to the absence of fear of death, and generativity serves to develop ego-integrity.
How and Why Generative People Think About Their Lives
In their generativity model, McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) postulated that generativity would eventually be incorporated into individuals’ narrative identity. Such narrative identities are the corpus of stories that people tell about themselves and that serve to integrate memories and life-episodes into a meaningful whole. McAdams (e.g., 2013) upholds that, specifically, compared to less generative adults, highly generative adults remember more (a) having been privileged during childhood, (b) having been sensitive to the suffering of other people, (c) having established firm moral values by adolescence which have guided their lives from then on, and (d) seeing how even negative life-events can eventually have positive outcomes. Moreover, these stories are characterized by (e) a balance between agency and communion and (f) prosocial goals that the person wants to act upon in the future. In sum, generative adults remember having been advantaged in comparison to others and want to give something back to society. Their moral values and optimism that the generative effort will come to a good end eventually support their generative endeavors.
Generativity is, however, related not only to the structure of autobiographical memories as illustrated by the commitment stories delineated above, it reflects also in the reasons why people think back to their past. Reasons for remembering the past, called reminiscence functions in the corresponding research literature, can be manifold. Two of these reminiscence functions, namely thinking back to one’s past to, first, instruct others and, second, prepare for death, motivate generative behavior in older adults (Hofer et al. 2018). That is, older individuals might use the reminiscence function teach/inform to respond to generative demands such as requests for specific advice. The reminiscence function of death preparation might be an attempt at creating a self-transcending legacy by sharing the memories of one’s life with others. Thus, generative individuals seem to remember their lives in a specific way and also use these memories to initiate generative behavior.
Applied Generativity Research
Research on applications of generativity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, generativity has been found to be relevant in various contexts. As can be seen, the majority of these proposed applications ties in with the major research findings delineated above.
Considering clinical settings, generativity is an integral aspect of dignity therapy (Chochinov et al. 2005) which was designed to alleviate psychological distress in terminally ill patients: Based on patients’ autobiographical narrations, a generativity document is written which patients can hand on as a self-transcending legacy. Moreover, to foster older adults’ well-being, programs have been developed that seek to provide older people with opportunities to engage in generative intergenerational interactions. Research shows that such programs do indeed increase generative concern (e.g., Ehlman et al. 2014) or a sense of generative achievement in their participants (e.g., Gruenewald et al. 2016).
Apart from such clinical interventions, generativity can also be applied in an organizational context. For example, Zacher et al. (2011) showed that team members judged older leaders as less effective leaders when their leader generativity was low, with leader generativity defined as the willingness to renounce one’s own career benefits to support members of the younger generation at work in establishing their own careers. That is, to help older superiors to maintain leader effectiveness, organizations might benefit from fostering leader generativity in older team leaders.
Future Directions of Research
As outlined above, for a long time, generativity has not been examined systematically and has received much less attention in psychological research than other developmental stages in Erikson’s theory. It is, thus, not surprising that there are some open questions that have not yet been addressed. Among these are questions that concern further applications of generativity, if and how generativity can be experimentally induced, and how generativity relates to individual differences in the perception of time, such as, e.g., time orientation (i.e., how much one thinks of the past, present, or future). In the following, two specific future direction of generativity research will be elaborated upon: first, generativity and culture because cross-cultural insight into generativity not only broadens the generalizability of scientific statements about generativity but might also be useful in fostering intercultural intergenerational contact in a globalized world, and second, the role of the recipient in the generative process because the recipient’s response is crucial in determining if generative endeavors are successful or not, thus determining the consequences for the generative individual.
Generativity and Culture
All cultures rely on individuals to pass on the spirit of their culture: their values, convictions, codes, and stories. Generativity can be assumed to play a pivotal role in motivating the corresponding behavior. Consequently, one would expect generativity to be cherished in all cultures (McAdams 2013). Accordingly, the McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) generativity model assumes cultural demand as a motivational source of generativity. That is, individuals are expected to behave generatively in culturally adequate way at some culturally appropriate point in their lives.
Seeing generativity as a desirable developmental outcome across cultures implies that generativity also has comparable consequences across cultures. In fact, some of the studies reviewed above investigating the relation between generative concern and well-being have done so cross-culturally and found comparable effects (e.g., Busch et al. 2018; Hofer et al. 2018); as of now, effects of the generative recipient’s reactions have exclusively been studied in Asian contexts (e.g., Cheng 2009). In a rare attempt at examining this specific aspect of the generativity model, cultural demand indeed positively affected generative concern in older adults from Cameroon, China (Hong Kong), the Czech Republic, and Germany (Hofer et al. 2016). In this study, cultural demand was assessed in the form of self-transcendence values, which subsume values concerning the welfare of close interaction partners, people in general, and nature.
However, the mere fact that all cultures require generativity and that cross-cultural equivalence in the correlates of generativity has been established for some variables do not preclude cross-cultural differences concerning generativity. For example, generative concern seems to be higher in more collectivist compared to individualistic cultures (Hofer et al. 2008). Moreover, which specific acts are considered appropriate in a given culture might well differ; in individualist cultures, creating a legacy to achieve symbolic immortality might be viewed more favorably than in collectivist cultures. Cross-cultural generativity research is thus needed to generate more knowledge on which behaviors are seen generative, who is allowed to be generative in specific ways, and how generativity ought to be timed in the life span in diverse cultural contexts.
The Role of the Recipient
So far, generativity research has been a rather one-sided affair: Although the beneficial effect of generativity on well-being should be seen for both the recipient of the generative effort and the generative individual (cf. Hebblethwaite and Norris 2011), to date, only little is known about generativity’s effect on recipients; the extant research, however, indicates that adult children experience more positive affect the more generative concern their parents express (Peterson 2006) and that via authoritative parenting, more generative concern in parents is associated with a stronger perception in adult children that they have similar attitudes as their parents (Peterson et al. 1997).
Still, the generative individual has been at the center of research, whereas the recipients of generative efforts have rarely been considered (e.g., Peterson 2006; Peterson et al. 1997) despite clear evidence that their reaction is crucial: As stated above, more perceived respect for generative action facilitates generative concern over a 1-year interval (Cheng 2009). On the other hand, more perceived rejection of generative efforts seems to hamper generative concern 12 months later (Tabuchi et al. 2015).
However, generativity research to date has been mute on what characteristics such reactions depend on; certainly, sometimes what well-meaning seniors intend to be generative is perceived as irrelevant or outdated by their juniors, which bears the potential for intergenerational conflicts. How can such conflicts be resolved without damaging adults’ willingness to act generatively or prevented in the first place? Furthermore, are there some characteristics of recipients that make them more likely to appreciate the generative efforts of others? For example, adolescents who are currently on the search for their identity and have not made firm identity commitments yet might be particularly grateful for others’ generativity.
Additionally, it is not always clear who the intended recipient of generative efforts is. Biological and parental generativity clearly are directed towards the generative individual’s child but who is chosen as pupil or mentee? As Kai Erikson (2004) points out, generative efforts aimed at benefitting one group of recipients might have detrimental effects on others. Erikson (1982) described the exclusion of others from one’s care as rejectivity and went on to discuss the danger that lies in rejecting others as unworthy of one’s generativity due to prejudice. Thus, in the choice of the recipients of generativity, in- vs. out-group effects might come to bear. Future generativity research might want to empirically address this issue.
Taken together, generativity describes the desire to pass something on to future generations, creating a self-transcending legacy from which future generations might benefit. It is a developmental task that is relevant across the entire adulthood: not, as originally assumed, only in midlife but in old age, too. It can find behavioral expression in a wide array of behaviors. Research has shown that – with certain restrictions – generativity pays off for generative individuals in that it is associated with well-being. An important limitation is the generative recipient’s reaction; the benefit for the generative individual seems to increase with the recipient’s appreciation of the generative effort. A major challenge for future generativity research will be to learn more about how culture shapes generativity and the effects of generativity on the recipient. More knowledge in this area might make practical applications of generativity more fruitful.
- Erikson EH (1963) Childhood and society, 2nd edn. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Erikson EH (1982) The life cycle completed. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Erikson EH, Erikson JM, Kivnick HQ (1986) Vital involvement in old age. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Evans RI (1967) Dialogue with Erik Erikson. Harper & Row, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Grossman MR, Gruenewald TL (2018) Failure to meet generative self-expectations is linked to poorer cognitive-affective well-being. J Gerontol: Psychol Sci. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby069
- Hofer J, Busch H, Au A et al (2016) Generativity does not necessarily satisfy all your needs: associations among cultural demand for generativity, generative concern, generative action, and need satisfaction in the elderly in four cultures. Dev Psychol 52:509–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000078CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Hofer J, Busch H, Au A et al (2018) Reminiscing to teach others and to prepare for death is associated with meaning in life through generative behavior in elderlies from four cultures. Aging Ment Health. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2018.1548568
- Kotre J (1996) Outliving the self: how we live on in future generations, 2nd edn. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar